“We are contemporary, we are traditional, we are unique”: African photographers are rewriting the rules

At first glance, Congolese photographer Kiripi Katembo’s images look like playful sci-fi montages: quivering streetscapes of Kinshasa in which giant boulders seem to fall from the sky, like a lo-fi apocalypse. On closer inspection, there are no special effects: the images are actually reflections in puddles, spilled, each capturing a fleeting moment of street life in a shimmering way and surreal which is arguably closer to the sensory experience of being there. It’s a testament to ingenuity: Katembo, who tragically died of malaria aged 36 in 2015, had little access to professional photographic equipment, so he found his own way to use the device photo. There was also an element of necessity. Most Congolese don’t want to have their picture taken, he once explained, so he had to look for less intrusive ways to document his community.

Many Africans would have good reason to be wary of a camera pointed at them. The histories of photography and colonialism go hand in hand, especially in Africa. As the Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera once wrote: “In Africa…the camera is part of the colonial paraphernalia, along with the gun and the Bible. Even as European powers carved out the continent in the 19th century, explorers returned the first photographic images of Africa, which inevitably reflected the mindset of those who created them: “wild” landscapes filtered through fantasies of the “dark continent”; quasi-scientific portraits of “subjects”, even of “specimens”.

A century of gaze has reversed, and what a relief. Judging by ‘A World in Common’, Tate Modern’s energetic and expansive new exhibition, Africa has taken the photograph and run with it. As well as an investigation of modern Africa in all its variety and complexity, the exhibition shows how artists like Katembo have used photography in their own way, overturning conventions, finding new modes of expression, even forging new postcolonial identities for the continent. “It’s an attempt to reimagine the possibilities of photography,” says curator Osei Bonsu, “not just as a tool that documents reality, but as something that has the potential to liberate storytellers and empower artists agency to rethink the world.”

One of the easiest places to follow the evolution of African photography is in the tradition of studio portraiture. At the turn of the 20th century, as in Europe, enterprising white photographers set up studios for wealthy residents. Santu Mofokeng’s archive of portraits of black South Africans from the period shows them dressed in formal Western attire – waistcoats, bonnets, bow ties – posing stiffly in Victorian interiors. These Africans commissioned their own photography, at least, but they could also be textbook illustrations of “internal colonization.”

By the 1950s, the post-independence utopian spirit of Pan-Africanism was sweeping the continent, and the medium was in the hands of Africans themselves. In West Africa, photographers like Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita and James Barnor captured this optimistic mood through both photojournalism and studio portraiture. Portraits from Barnor’s Ever Young studio in Accra, Ghana capture young professionals such as nurses or teachers, or family occasions such as weddings or births. The models seem relaxed and smiling, looking forward to a bright future.

Contemporary photographers have relied on this tradition. The studio portraits of Ethiopian Atong Atem and Nigerian Ruth Ginika Ossai are full of color, pattern and flamboyance. Ossai often selects the loudest fabrics possible, or backgrounds inspired by Igbo gospel videos and Nollywood movies. “I want my images to fill my subjects with power and agency, so they can be free and let their true selves shine through,” she says.

By the time we get to Hassan Hajjaj’s portraits of the “Kesh Angels”—bikers in Marrakech, Morocco—Western notions of portraiture and Arab women have been turned upside down. Riding street bikes and wearing colorful djellabas and veils, these women are cool, confident and confrontational. You don’t look at them; they are looking at you.

“It’s the idea that, if the camera has been a tool to distort certain bodies or subjects, how can it become equally a tool to liberate these subjects? said Bonsu.

There is little direct photojournalism in the series; for many of these photographers, the work is less about capturing an outer reality than expressing an inner reality. The term “Afrofuturism” has been overused to the point of exhaustion in recent years, and it doesn’t describe much of what’s going on here. As much as they imagine the future, many of these works incorporate the past – not just the colonial legacies, but the traditions they crushed and all but obliterated. Modern fashions mingle with tribal masks; historical images of chained workers are superimposed on modern mining sites; African spiritualism mixes with Christianity and Islam. Past, present, future – everything becomes one. One could see an African state of mind there.

“My reality is not the same as that which is often presented to us in Western photographs,” said the late Rotimi Fani-Kayode, whose sensual portraits fuse the conventions of European painting with Yoruba iconography, and the African formal wear with modern fetish gear.

“The way I see us Africans is that we exist at so many different points,” says Aïda Muluneh, one of the leading figures in African photography. “We are contemporary, we are traditional, we are unique in that regard. And then we are global at the same time. There are artists who live abroad; there are artists like me who live on the continent. But inside of that you have to look at what we’re trying to say.

Muluneh started out as a photojournalist for the Washington Post; now she constructs striking paintings that read like dream images: semi-abstract desert landscapes, women painted white, bands of saturated reds, blues and yellows. “These are colors that I feel very strongly, almost at the level of an obsession,” she says. “But they are more of a seduction; appeal to the audience in the image because there are many layers inside.

Muluneh’s work often focuses on female perspectives and identities. Her 2018 “Water Life” series, for example, deals with access to water and the labor of women to fetch it. Each frame is planned almost like a film shoot, she explains, starting with sketches, set construction, costume design, makeup, often followed by difficult filming, in this case in the salt flats. hot spots of Dallol in Ethiopia. “My biggest worry was that my lights were going to explode or my camera was going to melt,” she says. “We were out in this relentless sun and desert wind, which is basically heat and fire in your face.”

Muluneh grew up in Europe and North America before returning to Ethiopia in 2007. In addition to her own work, she has been busy building a local photography scene there – teaching, mentoring, running workshops and creating a biennial festival, Addis Foto Fest, in 2010. Four years ago, she created a companion event in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where she now lives. These are additions to a busy network of photography festivals that have sprung up over the past 15 years, including African Photography Encounters in Bamako, Mali, and Lagos Photo, Nigeria. These exhibitions also introduce Western photographers to Africa, just as artists such as Muluneh are exhibited around the world.

The Tate has its own colonial baggage, of course, as an institution built on the wealth of a sugar industry made possible by conquest and slavery. But the images served up for British consumption at the Tate Modern now show us Africa on its own terms. It feels less like a “them and us” situation. Many Britons themselves have African ancestry, just as many of these photographers have British connections. Ossai now lives in Yorkshire; Khadija Saye, whose portraits mimic 19th century techniques but incorporate traditional spiritual practices, was a British Gambian artist who died in the Grenfell Tower fire; Fani-Kayode lived and worked in Britain until her death in 1989. Bonsu describes her family as Ghanaian-Welsh. Inevitably, themes of modern migration emerge, as in the work of Dawit Petros, an Eritrean emigrant now living in Canada. In his portraits, figures stand in the landscape with long mirrors obscuring their faces – literally reflecting where they come from as they walk to a new place.

One of the show’s frontrunners, Bonsu explains, was Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe, who saw the West’s “dark continent” attitudes toward Africa as a reflection of his “desperate desire to affirm its difference with the rest of the world… Africa again constitutes one of the metaphors by which the West represents the origin of its own standards, develops an image of itself. In other words, the colonial gaze never really focused on Western ideas about Africa; it was about the West’s ideas of itself. But Mbembe’s notion of a “world in common” highlights the interconnectedness of the modern world and the possibility of “thinking the world from Africa,” says Bonsu. “In doing so, one would gain a broader understanding of humanity.” Where the West once thought it was shaping African culture, Africa is now shaping ours.

By Steve Rose

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